Okay so mum’s the word on PACER Plus! What about transparency?

Mum’s the word. It is an English saying which means you agreeing with someone, that it (whatever it is) should be kept secret. Probably, that is what is happening at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), in relation to the regional trade agreement PACER Plus – amidst reports Samoa has ratified the Agreement.

PACER Plus is the acronym for the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus. The regional trade agreement opened for signing on June 14, 2017 and has so far been signed by Australia, New Zealand and nine Pacific Island states (Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu). Only Australia and New Zealand have ratified the agreement, and if the reports are true, Samoa recently. 

However, MFAT has not been forthcoming, despite repeated attempts by the Samoa Observer to get confirmation from the Ministry, that the Government in Apia has put pen to paper. 

The silence has been deafening in the Samoan capital, but this has not stopped the New Zealand government from congratulating Samoa on the ratification, with the Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker releasing a statement on July 19.

“This is a positive development, with Samoa becoming the first Pacific signatory to ratify PACER Plus. New Zealand appreciates Samoa showing the way for other Pacific signatories to continue with their efforts to ratify,” Mr Parker said in his statement.

The press coverage that followed by local, regional and international media three to four days later were all based on the statement released by New Zealand’s Trade and Export Growth Minister – but again silence from the purported ratification signatory, Samoa.

Even the Apia-based United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Regional Coordinator, Dr. Patrick Goettner, says he is yet to receive confirmation that the work required to ratify the regional trade agreement has been completed. 

“Usually the Government of Samoa would release an official statement but I haven’t seen one yet,” he told this newspaper in an interview

Dr. Goettner added that the trade legislation database has still not been compiled and uploaded, and the required procedures are still being verified.

Therefore, did Mr Parker jump the gun last month to make the announcement without the knowledge of the Samoa Government? And is there a push by Canberra and Wellington to get more Pacific Island states on board in the lead-up to the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Summit in Tuvalu later this month?

Mr Parker hopes more states will sign with the August 13-16 PIF Leaders Summit around the corner.

“I welcome the ratification of more Pacific signatories in coming months as we approach the Pacific Islands Forum in August in Tuvalu,” he said.

Interestingly, no congratulatory messages from Canberra, though it did tweak a page – which is dedicated to the Agreement on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website – to state that Samoa has ratified PACER Plus with Australia and New Zealand. 

“Australia, New Zealand and Samoa have ratified the Agreement. Other signatories are working toward ratifying it. PACER Plus will come into force 60 days after the eighth signatory to ratify the Agreement notifies the Depositary in Tonga that they have completed their domestic processes,” states the brief on the DFAT website.

With discussions on PACER Plus beginning in 2009, a lot has been said and written on the issue over the last decade, including the pages of this newspaper. The concerns have not changed over the years in Samoa and the other participating Pacific Island states: fears of the Agreement’s impact on government revenue when import duty is removed (and its cascading effect on basic services delivery); the loss of employment in the local manufacturing sector due to the absence of protective tariffs; the inability of governments to regulate trade flows done under the auspices of the Agreement; and the strong focus on trade at the expense of development outcomes. 

Fiu Mataese Elisara, the Ole Siosiomaga Society Incorporated Executive Director, has been at the forefront of analysing the potential impact of PACER Plus from the Samoan context in recent years.

This newspaper republished his analysis titled “Samoa cautioned in critical trade decisions” in the July 29, 2019 edition to give more perspective on the issue and for the benefit of our readers.

“The threats and risks that these free trade agreements generate are huge and unfortunately mostly irreversible. PACER Plus, Interim Economic Partnership Agreement, and post-Cotonou agreements typically enmesh Pacific leaders and officials by the agenda of the rich,” Fui wrote.

Juxtaposing Fui and others’ critical commentary against the perceived benefits to the country – which Australia and New Zealand have fiercely promoted in recent years – surely warrants a clarification from the MFAT or better still a statement from the Samoa Government on whether or not the Agreement has been ratified.

All governments are after all accountable to their people. Or are they? 

Have a lovely Friday Samoa and God bless. 

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